This is part two of my comments about David Itzkoff’s ‘review‘ of John Scalzi’s works.
In the second paragraph of this, while talking about Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, he makes the following statement: “but to a contemporary reader it is almost impossible to interpret the novel as anything other than an endorsement of fascism, from an era when the f-word wasn’t just a pejorative suffix to be attached to any philosophy you disagreed with”.
Really? Let’s look at the definition of fascism and see if there is anything in Starship Troopers that fits that definition: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition (Merriam Webster).
Let’s take these pieces one at a time.
A dictatorial leader – nope, don’t find one in the book. The society Heinlein envisioned still had elections (yes, only veterans could vote, but they were still elections), still had courts, still had law making bodies.
Exalts race over individual – a very specific no. Heinlein makes a point that anyone, regardless of race, creed, political affiliation, or any other characteristic (including being blind and disabled) were treated identically within the military, and that everyone could join if they so desired.
Exalt nation over individual – a qualified yes to this one. Heinlein made the very specific point that the individual, as a member of a society that provides him benefits, owes that society a debt and a duty to help serve that society. In fact, it’s the lynch pin of his envisioned world, as he felt that only by balancing the power represented by the vote with the individual’s acceptance of responsibility towards the society could the malaise of the average voter of today voting for bread and circuses be prevented. Though it’s not in the book (apparently cut during his editing of it), Heinlein in later interviews also indicated that not just military service would do to qualify for the vote, but other service to the community would fulfill the requirement, such as things like the Peace Corps, as long as such service demanded real commitment by the individual. In other words, even conscientious objectors could qualify.
Severe economic and social regimentation: nope, not here either. Juan Rico’s father certainly had the liberty to conduct his business as he saw fit, and only complained about new government tolls and requirements when they were deep into a war footing. Regimentation? Don’t think so, when the local town punks think it might be great fun to mix it up with a few ‘low-life’ soldiers.
Forcible suppression of opposition: not there, though the general political landscape outside of the military was not greatly detailed. There was some commentary about how little political unrest there was in this society, attributed to having all the ‘wolves’ be part of the decision making process, but not because the government actively suppressed all opposition.
So the fact is the actual contents of the book do not support Mr. Itzkoff’s statement.
Now the movie version is a different matter – and I have exactly the same objections to that movie as to Mr. Itzkoff’s statement. Quite frankly, that movie was a travesty, completely mis-representing the philosophy Heinlein was trying to present. Given Mr. Itzkoff’s statement, I wonder if he’s actually read the book, or only seen the movie.
Now, on the other hand, Heinlein did do a bit to glorify the military. The service he shows is efficient (in fact, Heinlein shows specific methods of improving the head-to-tail ratio that normally plagues military organizations), it has an officer corps trained not just by military academies but by actual experience in the field (something not true of our current military, where 90 day wonders are all too prevalent), and it’s training courses are meant to train not just interchangeable bodies but to educate the minds of the soldiers in why they fight. Then he cheated a bit by concentrating only on those soldiers who see direct front line action, and he set up a war scenario where diplomacy was impossible and our species survival was at stake, thereby hiding the fact that the decision to wage war, and how to wage it, is not an all-or-nothing proposition.
But it should also be remembered that Heinlein was a graduate of Annapolis, and duty, honor, and patriotism were hallmarks deeply engraved in the man. This book was a response to what he saw as a dangerous trend within American society, the ‘better Red than dead’ faction. Heinlein did not serve actively in the military in WWII, as he was medically discharged in 1934 with tuberculosis, but he did serve in the fashion he was allowed, working on high-altitude pressure suit research and other avionic work. But he certainly knew and detested everything about the Hitlerian regime.
Finally, Mr. Itzkoff makes another statement that is foolish on its face: ” “Starship Troopers” might be the least enticing recruitment tool since “Billy Budd.”" It might surprise him to know that this book has been on the recommended reading list of all the service academies – and I really don’t think it would have been placed there if it was a poor recruitment tool. And personally, I enlisted in the Air Force in 1968, when Vietnam was really warming up, and quite a few of my friends were figuring out every possible way to avoid the draft – something that Heinlein was absolutely against, as exactly the kind of slavery that a fascist state could demand. A good portion of the reason I did so was the influence of this book.